Thursday, January 7, 2010

Jatropha, best of biofuels?

Bioenergy provides an opportunity for rural Africans to move out of poverty through access to modern forms of energy that will help investment in agriculture. And what is more, the Jatropha plant, available in Africa since the 16th century, is not only at the core of the bioenergy revolution, it is also easy to grow and has the potential of creating millions of jobs in rural Africa.

Victoria Ferris reports.

FOOD, FUEL, AND FINANCE ARE the three great crises that have shocked the world in recent years. This threefold calamity requires active responses on a global scale, yet developing and low-polluter countries are suffering the worst effects of climate change, and in many cases are left helpless. Much ink has been spilled describing how African countries are particularly vulnerable to climate change due to their heavy reliance on climate-sensitive industries such as agriculture, forestry, and fisheries but few talk about implementing potential remedies.

If the world remains on this disastrous course, African agriculture will continue to be painfully affected. Freak changes in water availability have already led to a significant decline in rainfall across the continent. East Africa's rains, when they come at all, are heavier with intense storms, leading to crop losses and other destruction. In West Africa, all along the Abidjan-Lagos corridor, extreme floods throughout May and June 2009 brought devastation and a heavy death toll.


It is, therefore, only sensible for people to advocate for the world's biggest emitters of carbon dioxide to reverse the consequences by cutting their emissions. In those countries, and in Africa too, alternative energies exist, and must be utilised.

It is against this background that a Green. Power Conference was held in Accra, Ghana from 26-29 October. It hosted the Bioenergy Markets West Africa Symposium with 100 select participants and speakers to identify both the financial risks and the great potential for financing African bioenergy production.

There was a consensus that bioenergy provides a multiplicity of benefits to African economies. The mood throughout the four-day event was that bioenergy represents an opportunity for the vast majority of rural Africans to move out of poverty through access to modern forms of energy that will help investment in agriculture. In order to alleviate poverty and to grow their economies, African countries need energy security, and there are a variety of options such as harnessing the hydropower of the vast Congo River and other major waterways in Africa, to utilising photovoltaic solar panels, wind turbines, and bioenergy crops such as jatropha or sugarcane. If agriculture can produce its own energy from biowaste, and use rotational crops to replenish soils, it will represent a huge leap in the right direction.

With enormous unmet demand for electricity (only 16% of the continent is electrified), ample labour resources, and abundant land mixed with the proven technology to convert biomass for electricity generation, Africa's bioenergy opportunity clearly stands out. The amount of electrification in sub-Saharan Africa is even lower at only 8% while Africans spend up to 70% of their household income on energy (diesel, kerosene, charcoal), showing there is a pressing need to remedy Africa's energy insecurity.

Together with the Ghanaian Ministry of Energy, President John Atta Mills released a draft renewable energy bill in September 2009 to promote renewable sources for electricity generation. Ghana has the highest rate of electrification in the West African region, with Nigeria second.

Hosts of the Ecowas electricity regulatory agency and the Bioenergy Markets West Africa Symposium, Ghana has been pushing for electrification as a priority for the past 20 years with the eventual goal of 100% full coverage and universal access within the next 10 years. This aspiration of 100% electrification could soon be realised by generating energy and fuel from jatropha, palm oil, ethanol and sweet sorghum.

"Africa as a continent, theoretically could produce all the energy the world needs," says Clifford Spencer, one of the UN Foundation experts who worked on a recent comprehensive report on sustainable bioenergy development in the member states of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA).

However, according to Spencer, strategic agronomical practices must be put in place to battle challenges like water scarcity and historic factors such as erratic crop yields and rural-urban migration.

Biodiesel is a recent phenomenon in Ghana, with much of the focus on jatropha and palm oil. The average price of vegetable oil (jatropha, palm oil, soya, coconut etc) is high, currently at $I.20-$I.6o per litre. Transforming these oils into biodiesel requires an additional 40-50% of that cost, bringing it to $2.30 per litre.

So is jatropha profitable? At present jatropha farmers and those in the agro-oil trade are reaping small returns, but that is only because it is largely a new industry. It is expected that over the next few years raw materials and seed prices will come down, and improved agronomic methods will become available to increase yields. With oil trading at $100 a barrel, the potential to extract alternative fuel out of jatropha seed and other alternatives is very attractive.

It is still cheaper to use manual labour rather than mechanised methods in jatropha cultivation, and with much of rural Africa plagued by high unemployment, biofuels do not only bring energy security but also create local jobs and renew bleak rural economies across the continent.

While jatropha holds many advantages socially, economically, and environmentally, there are still arduous barriers to exploiting it on a large scale. For instance, vast farmable holdings are only available in thinly populated areas and with labour-intensive plantations, many people are needed for harvesting and maintenance.

Each hectare needs a minimum of two to three people, so farming a plantation of 50,000 hectares would need 150,000 people. Bringing in seasonal workers for these numbers would be no small task, and so over time, mechanisation of the industry is expected. One organisation that is attempting to produce biodiesel from jatropha on an industrial scale, and also to create rural jobs with manual harvesting, is the Dutch-backed Mali Biocarburant. It is ahead of other companies in the race to produce fuel from jatropha because it is not relying on new plantations to source its raw material. Instead it buys jatropha nuts already available from the roughly 20,000 km of jatropha fences crisscrossing Mali that are used by farmers to protect other crops and stop soil erosion.

The firm is also giving farmers seeds to increase crop output for the future. If this business model works out, "it will be really revolutionary for Africa," says the financier and chief executive of the firm, Hugo Verkuijl. For Mali, biofuels are not new. In order to tackle its triple handicap of poverty, lack of seaport access, and no domestic fossil fuel production, jatropha has been cultivated since 1987 and ethanol has been used since 1983 to fuel trucks. Processing jatropha nut oil into biofuel does not require advanced technology. So rather than setting up large plantations, Mali Biocarburant is promoting jatropha as a means of diversification for farmers, alongside millet, sorghum or maize.

Food versus fuel

At the bioenergy conference in Accra, Meghan Sapp, secretary general of Partners for Euro-African Green Energy (PANGEA), defended the use of African arable land for fuel production, pointing the finger at significant, long-term underinvestment in agriculture as a main cause of the continent's food insecurity. That, tied with poor market access and often non-existent infrastructure, has kept Africa on its knees. Bioenergy production, she said, offered a key to help reverse this decades-long trend.

The problem of food production conflicting with fuel can be eliminated through growing food-based energy crops. For example, if more and more palm oil is produced, then the available supply of palm oil will eventually overcome demand for cooking oil, leaving oil not only for food production but also bringing down the price of the oil for both food and fuel. Crop waste can always be used for electricity production rather than being inefficiently burned. One must also be mindful of the reality, that much of the land in Africa is not being farmed. Even the lush coastal UEMOA countries of Benin, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Togo have only 2.5%, 11%, 6.9%, 0.24% and 2.11% respectively of their lands under cultivation.

These striking figures show that the outcry over biofuel farming stealing food production sites is, to a degree, unfounded. Nevertheless, regulations and ombudsmen should be in place to ensure that local populations have ample food whilst meeting their energy needs.

There is no reason why food and fuel cannot thrive side by side in the very same field or be produced simultaneously from the same crop using modern processing technologies. While many of Africa's economies rely upon the export of basic commodities, processing crops into food and fuel domestically ensures that value addition stays at home, rather than being exported to developed countries.

On the final day of the conference, a site visit was made to a jatropha plantation where aubergines, chilli peppers, and peanuts are grown as perfect intercroppers alongside jatropha. Intercropping helps boost cash flow and when done with leguminous crops like peanut, the nitrogen fixation becomes beneficial for jatropha growth and weed control, while improving soil quality overall. Also in that same holding, the farmer was growing onions too, just to diversify the land use and provide onions to the local market.

The next Green Power Bioenergy Markets Symposium will be held in Maputo, Mozambique, over 23-26 February 2010. With several national institutions already in place supporting bioenergy, Mozambique is one of the most developed biofuels and advanced jatropha markets in Africa. Its land zoning initiative might be one of the pathways to ensure sufficient food production. Now is the time to learn best practices from one another and implement sustainable solutions that allow African rural economies to grow.

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Jatropha--the miracle plant?

* It is a survivor-very durable
* CO2 neutral
* Perennial tree, found in the tropics
* Widely present in Africa since the 16th century
* Provides its first crop 2 years after planting
* Investment rewarded with at least 40 years' cropping lif
* Lifespan is more than 50 years
* Husks and shells are traditionally used for fertiliser, and now for fuel
* Jatropha oil is traditionally used to make soap, and now for biofuel
* Oil is non-edible
* Technical specifications of Jatropha oil are excellent
* Can be used as direct fuel (with additives) in engine
* Jatropha's ability to grow on wasteland, rather than requiring fertile land, has been lauded by environmentalists keen to limit the impact of other biofuels such as corn-derived ethanol

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